Running a trail spanning anywhere from 30 to 100 miles used to be reserved for a small group of super athletes, but now ultra-running is a fast-growing extreme sport in America. Since starting my ultramarathon career 15 years ago, I’ve competed in more than 100 races, with 55 female first-place finishes.
Some of my career highlights include setting the women’s record at the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc in 2009 and more recently, winning the Ultra-Trail Mount Fuji in 2013. Here are a few tips for anyone thinking about entering this sport:
1. Listen to your body.
It has a lot to tell you, especially as you get into longer miles. As discomfort creeps in, ask, “What do I need to do to keep moving forward? Will nutrition help? Hydration? A quick break to stretch? A moment to take in the view I’ve earned? More layers?”
If you are dealing with a big decision at work, a conflict in a relationship or solving the world’s problems, long-distance running allows you the head space, clarity, and perspective to work through the realities of life in a safe space. As I always say, there aren’t many issues in life that a long run can’t solve.
2. Treat your environment well.
Take care of and learn about the environment you are running in. Always do your best to leave it how you found it or better. This means digging a hole to bury human waste and making sure no trash is left behind.
3. Be flexible.
As you figure out what (gear, food, clothes, shoes, etc.) works for you, know that your body will continue to morph. Always be open to tweaking your systems and habits.
4. Get pedicures.
Take care of your feet; everything is riding on them. Training for an ultra does a number on your feet, and getting a pedicure is the least you can do to take care of them. The polish is great for hiding black toes (a likely side effect of training for an ultra) and the scrubbing and soaking can help remove calluses.
5. Learn from others.
You wouldn’t go into a test without studying; the same goes for running your first ultramarathon. There are great resources online and in books that allow you to learn from the trials of other people so that you don’t have to make the same errors. Unlike some sports, you can train for an ultramarathon on your own, making it even more important that you read as much literature as you can on it. In order to succeed, you must become a student of the sport.
6. Build in recovery time.
Give your body and mind time to recover throughout your training and especially after your more challenging workouts. It is crucial to take mini-breaks while training to allow your body to absorb all the work you have been doing. It’s easy to just keep upping your mileage and training, but the breaks are where the magic (training adaptation) happens.
We can often get caught up in “what’s next?” especially after achieving a goal. I’m a firm believer in the importance of acknowledging your success and celebrating by rewarding yourself with downtime and conscious breaks from focused training. However, during a break, I don’t recommend becoming a couch potato. Fitness maintenance should continue, but don’t start thinking about your next big goal for at least two weeks.
7. Fuel well and frequently in training.
When training for an ultra, it is crucial that you make a conscious effort to refuel often to keep up with all the calories you are burning. There is no umbrella formula that works for everyone and there are many factors at play. Consult a doctor to create the best nutrition and hydration plan for you.
Discover new landscapes and things about yourself. Running is the best way to explore new places while traveling. An easy morning run can give you better perspective of the lay of the land, help you find the best coffee shop in town, and hopefully access wild spaces and trails (depending on where you are).
9. Try to learn something from every experience.
Write down your thoughts and feelings after you accomplish a goal or endure a particularly grueling challenge. As you reread them you can take away lessons for the future.
I know it may seem silly or obvious, but this is a lesson I learned in my first ultramarathon race and it is one that carries through well into life. A smile will help you through pretty much anything.
Check out more tips from my new book, Running Your First Ultra, available now.
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